Watching “Prometheus” is like opening a deluxe gift box from Tiffany’s to find a mug from the dollar store. Everything in the film’s first third primes you for what months of hype have promised: a spin-off of the “Alien” franchise (sequel? prequel? first cousin once removed?) with the metaphysical stakes raised even higher. The 3-D visuals are epic yet so crisply imagined as to seem hyperreal, and the time-scale is equally vast. The movie begins at the dawn of prehistory, with an extraterrestrial who looks like he stepped from a Roman frieze sacrificing body, soul, and DNA to create mankind. Before long, we’re on an interstellar spaceship, the Prometheus, in the year 2093, full of gleaming machinery and humans desperate to meet their alien makers.
Ridley Scott is back at the helm, directing his first science-fiction film since the original “Alien” and “Blade Runner” at the turn of the ’80s. There’s an android steering the ship while the human crew sleeps the journey away; in a nod to “2001,” he’s named Dave and he sounds like HAL. Michael Fassbender plays him as a gentle quick study, watching “Lawrence of Arabia” to pass the time and dying his hair blonde in imitation of Peter O’Toole. The crewmembers seem like they’re in good hands and so do we.
Yet somewhere along the way, you begin to detect the odor of thrice-cooked hash. “Prometheus” turns out to be a prequel to the “Alien” movies that, if you care about such things (and many of us do) fills in a number of blanks: The genesis of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, the relevance of the “space jockey” from the first film, the thoroughly confusing biomorphology of the killer aliens themselves, and even why they exist in the first place. The moviemakers take a failed stab at explaining why we exist, but presumably they’re saving that for the next film.
Essentially, though, the movie’s a muscular, exquisitely produced remake that sends a crew of earthlings into the dark so that horrible things can happen to them. We’ve been here before, with lesser technology but more purpose. The central character of “Prometheus” — this movie’s Ripley — is Ellie Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an archeologist who, with her husband, Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green, looking like Tom Hardy’s twin), is the idealist on board. She’s a scientist but also a true believer, with a crucifix around her neck that acquires fuzzy symbolic weight as the film progresses.
Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish versions of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” films, is an elegant, engaging presence, and you root for her even when she’s stripped down to her skivvies (sound familiar?) and battling alien life forms without and within. I think it’s no coincidence that Ellie shares her noble prow of a nose with the ETs who seeded Earth and who now appear to be having second thoughts.
The rest of the crew is a mixed bag of functional characters and lunchmeat. The most enjoyably familiar is Idris Elba as Janek, captain of the Prometheus and a nuts-and-bolts sort who’s mostly stuck on the ship’s bridge. The most freshly realized is probably Meredith Vickers, a slim, soulless representative of the Weyland Corporation. Charlize Theron plays her with every bit of the nuance she left out of “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and the result is that Vickers is a cool killer of a character, five steps ahead of everyone else on the ship yet willing to have a quick shag to prove she’s not a robot.
All of them set down on a distant planetary moon called LV-223 (not to be confused with LV-426, site of the original “Alien”) where, it is hoped, our extraterrestrial creators will greet them with open arms. Most of “Prometheus” takes place in the dark caverns beneath the surface, with rooms that open on other rooms, each revealing more secrets, more goo, more death. Screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof haven’t filled out the “Alien” mythology so much as added additional layers on top of it, and you might go a little bonkers trying to keep everything straight. Their “more” rarely adds up to “better.”
Around the time that one crew member gets transformed into a rageaholic version of the Elephant Man, you start to realize that “Prometheus” is throwing scenes at us just to see what sticks. A few feel viciously to the point, like the harrowing sequence in which Ellie has to perform emergency surgery on herself or else. Scott is at the top of his game here, and the scene is charged with imminent horror yet so tightly edited you can’t breathe.
What follows feels increasingly scattered, although a sequence involving a star-map does take advantage of the film’s workmanlike 3-D. When the 44-year-old Guy Pearce turns up playing a very old man, it feels like a cheat — why couldn’t the producers have just hired a very old man? — as does the needless twist that follows. By the end, the movie feels more bloodless than its heroine, and how she’s still standing is anyone’s guess.
The first “Alien” succeeded because it was demonically streamlined — it was “Halloween” in outer space, no less and, as it turned out, a whole lot more. The second film, James Cameron’s “Aliens,” remains one of the purest, most beautifully crafted action movies of all time, with a resonant core of mother love to give it heft. “Prometheus” is just big, beautiful, and empty.
There are compensatory pleasures in the richness of the production, the immensity of everything we see, and the beguiling complexity of the film’s machinery. (Isn’t it ironic that a story taking place 30 years before the first “Alien” appears to have superior technology? Discuss.) Yet it’s telling that the movie’s most emotionally involving character is an android. Perhaps it’s all those months watching “Lawrence of Arabia.” You might be better off doing the same.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.